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World: Publishing News On The Internet--Revolution Or Evolution?

Washington, 25 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- More and more newspapers are entering the realm of publishing on the Internet, sparking an interesting debate over whether web reporting is resulting in a revolution or an evolution in journalism.

According to Tim Lewthwaite of the Newspaper Association of America (NNA), a non-profit organization representing the newspaper industry, there are currently more than 500 American newspapers online, with more joining every day.

This more than doubles the number of newspapers online from last year and quadruples the total from 1995, according to NNA figures.

Many experts say that the Internet is changing the way newspapers publish their information, mostly because the Internet offers them something traditionally only available to television and radio media -- immediacy of news distribution.

News can be posted on the Internet as soon as it breaks, permitting newspapers for the first time to compete with television and radio coverage of an event instead of having to wait until the actual paper is on the street.

Experts say there are also other valuable advantages to publishing and writing news for the Internet.

Geographic flexibility is a big advantage since newspapers online can be distributed widely and read by anyone, anywhere in the world, as long as the user has Internet access.

However, observers say this does require online reporters to write with more than just a local audience in mind -- and newspaper staff have to adjust accordingly.

Another plus to publishing online, say experts, is the ability to easily produce multiple editions with hourly and even to-the-minute updates of news. As a result, the look and content can be very different from the paper version.

Shannon Martin, a Rutgers University journalism professor, says "the electronic version of a newspaper isn't usually the same as its paper-based counterpart."

Martin, who is studying the evolution and impact of online newspapers says: "the format is often different -- breaking news is easily added, stories aren't presented or illustrated in the same way, and advertising may appear as a banner on a page with electronic links to full texts. There's often an archive of recent stories to tap into as well."

But an article published a few months ago by the "The New York Times" newspaper suggests that hundreds of newspapers online still are not taking full advantage of the Internet because they are reluctant to reveal their lead stories before the actual papers are printed.

According to the article, this is an issue that newspapers must address as the Internet matures and competition from other online news sources such as America Online and the Microsoft Corporation emerges.

"It is not a question of if, but when," says Nick Donatiello, chief executive of Odyssey L.P, a market research firm."

"The whole idea that ten years from now editors will be able to hold back a newspaper until it comes out as ink on paper is not consistent with how consumers have been behaving."

This is an important point for newspaper editors since consumers, especially the lucrative market group aged 18-29, are apparently flocking to the Internet to get their news.

According to a recent survey commissioned by the Freedom Forum, an American non-partisan, private foundation dedicated to the preservation of freedom of speech and the press, 10 percent of this age group get their news daily from the Internet, and 30 percent get news at least once a week electronically.

Professor Shannon Martin told RFE/RL that the new medium is still in its infancy, but is expected to grow as online newspapers adjust their format, selection and news presentation to fit their new market. She adds that many of the newspapers are still in the experimental stages with their web sites and trying to determine the interests and needs of their subscribers.

"There are still problems with equipment failure at both ends and not yet a lot of research available on how subscribers actually use the web sites," she says. "But I think that if you look through the history of any mass media, there is always a period of experimenting and looking around until people figure out what works."

John V. Pavlik of Columbia University's Center for New Media says: "What we're seeing today in the online news world is only the beginning of a revolution in news. In the years to come, online news will evolve greatly ... (to) become much more interactive, immersive and individualized."

But Martin disagrees with the idea that a revolution is taking place in field of journalism, instead suggesting that it is more of an evolution. "I think what we are going toward is an enhancement," she says. "I think that journalism on the whole should still try to adhere to journalist traditions."

Whether revolution or evolution, all experts agree that the Internet is changing the face of the traditional media.